NATO’s Success Forcing Changes : On 40th Anniversary, Alliance Is Moving Toward New Strategy

Times Staff Writer

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been the most successful defense alliance of the century, perhaps any century, preserving peace in Europe in the nuclear age. Yet on the eve of its 40th anniversary, NATO is undergoing severe internal strains as it seeks a new strategy to counter the blandishments of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

“We seem to be the victims of our own success,” a senior official at NATO headquarters here remarked the other day. “If the Cold War is ending, it is ending on our terms. Yet we appear to be in disarray. Gorbachev is viewed as the good guy. We have got to change that perception, and whatever substance lies behind it.”

At the heart of NATO’s problem--and it will color the alliance’s anniversary ceremonies Tuesday--is Gorbachev’s offer to sharply reduce troops and armor on the Central European front, the most heavily armed area in the world.

Offer Is Only a Proposal

NATO officials note that so far this offer is only a proposal, not an accomplished fact, yet it has left the West unsettled about how to respond.

And the response, according to European military analysts, is the No. 1 problem facing the Western alliance today.


According to every public opinion poll on the subject, the Gorbachev proposal holds enormous appeal for Europeans. In fact, his sweet-sounding statements appear to undercut NATO’s very reason for being: to counter the military threat of the Soviet Union and its East European allies.

“Gorbachev’s popularity is a strange phenomenon,” a veteran NATO planner said. “Here he is with a country in economic shambles, his European satellites breaking up, the minorities within the Soviet Union crumbling and his army pulling out of Afghanistan having lost a long war. For a guy with a pair of deuces in his hand, he is playing one hell of a game of poker.”

Serious Rift

The poker game has produced what could be a serious rift between West Germany and its principal allies, the United States and Britain, over the sensitive issue of modernizing short-range nuclear weapons.

Washington and London want Bonn to make a public commitment to stationing on its soil a successor to the Lance missile, which has a range of 70 miles and will become obsolete in the mid-1990s. Such a German commitment, they argue, would help persuade the U.S. Congress to vote funds for a Lance 2.

But West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, after backing and filling on the issue, now says that any such decision should be put off until after the West German national elections scheduled for December, 1990.

Because of this vacillation, many NATO officials say, Kohl has not demonstrated strong leadership, and this could jeopardize the alliance.

NATO officials hope to resolve the modernization dispute before alliance leaders meet here May 29-30 in a summit conference, which will also take up such perennial questions as allied burden-sharing and possible U.S. troop cuts in Europe.

The Lance question ties in with another major difference between the West Germans and their NATO allies: negotiations with the Soviets on reducing short-range nuclear weapons.

Missile Cutback Favored

The West Germans, particularly Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, favor cutting back on short-range nuclear missiles and artillery shells, almost all of which are based in West Germany and, in the event of war, would be used there.

Washington and London want to hold off such negotiations until after progress is made in the Vienna talks on reducing conventional arms. They fear that Gorbachev will offer to abolish all short-range nuclear weapons.

“If Gorbachev offers a unilateral ban on short-range nuclear weapons,” one strategist said, “the West Germans will find it very difficult not to go along.”

New Strategy Urged

Beyond the May summit meeting, many observers believe that NATO must come up with a new strategy to deal with Soviet proposals if for no other reason than to pacify European public opinion.

“There’s no question about it,” said Francois Heisbourg, director of London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies. “If NATO does not sketch out a strategy for the future, it will become an increasingly irrelevant body--withering at best and, at worst, a deadening encumbrance.”

Frederick Bonnart, a strategic analyst and editor of the magazine, NATO’s Sixteen Nations, said: “The danger today is that the initiative is slipping away from NATO toward Gorbachev. To get at the hearts and the minds of our electorates, NATO has to become more political, to tackle broader questions than military defense. The NATO summit declaration should make this clear.”

‘Comprehensive Concept’

NATO planners have been working on what they call a “comprehensive concept” that would spell out the alliance’s view of arms control and force levels, one aspect of which was presented to the Warsaw Pact nations at the beginning of the Vienna talks.

However, the comprehensive concept will deal mainly with arms matters rather than the wider political scene.

The problem for both the comprehensive concept and a broader political declaration is to get agreement among the 16 members that is needed for any major policy decision.

Such consensus has been necessary ever since NATO was founded. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington on April 4, 1949, by the representatives of 12 governments. West Germany, Greece, Turkey and Spain joined later.

Today, as the threat from the East seems to have lessened, NATO officials say they must project a new policy, a longer-range vision. But how?

‘Road Map Into the Future’

NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner, a former West German defense minister, plans to issue a declaration at the summit meeting that will be “a political message, describing the way ahead, a sort of road map into the future, which clearly indicates our goals and our policy--policy in a global context and policy of East-West relations.”

Thus, two documents are expected to emerge from the summit meeting that will help chart the future: a comprehensive concept of arms control and a wider declaration on NATO’s political aims.

Karsten Voigt, an arms specialist for West Germany’s opposition Social Democratic Party, who supports NATO but is against short-range nuclear weapons, said recently: “Our real problem has been with NATO’s success. We always asked for change in the East--and now we are getting it. But it is confusing alliance members. I sometimes think NATO has been more comfortable with a reliable adversary in the East, rather than unreliable partners in the West.”

‘No Turning Back’

One of the most respected diplomats at NATO headquarters, who asked not to be identified by name, offered this advice: “Nobody can predict the future. Nobody can say what Eastern Europe will be like in two or three years, or whether Gorbachev will last, or who would replace him. If we scrap our nuclear weapons, there is no turning back.

“We in NATO should be sympathetic toward the East, but uninvolved and dispassionate, which is perhaps easier for the United States and Britain than for West Germany.

“We should simply be there--a sturdy presence, strong, sensible, stable, predictable. For the East, we mustn’t arouse hopes we can’t fulfill. But we don’t want to turn a cold shoulder, either.

“It will be a very difficult, perhaps dangerous, process. But that is the challenge for NATO.”

NATO: 40 YEARS OF LOOKING EAST NATO was conceived as mutual defense group of nations to guard against possibility of Soviet Bloc invasion of Western Europe.

Its organization is a complex alphabet-soup structure, both military and civilian, ranging from governing North Atlantic Council (NAC) at top down through regional military commands such as Allied Command, Atlantic, or ACLANT, responsible for the North Atlantic, down to sub-level commands such as Allied Forces Northern Europe (AFNORTH), covering Denmark, Norway and northern West Germany.

Senior NATO civilian is secretary general, who heads North Atlantic Council. Senior military officer is supreme allied commander, Europe, who has always been American.

NATO’s doctrine is based on what is called “flexible response” allowing for the use of either conventional or nuclear forces, depending on the nature of any Warsaw Pact invasion.